EDITORIAL: Whose money is it?

HOW MUCH MONEY have you squirreled away under your mattress? Or maybe there’s not enough to bother stashing what’s left after the bills get paid. Either way, wouldn’t you prefer to determine how to handle your own money?

We’re talking here about your money and the government. So, to review, a basic principle underlying democracy is the understanding that people agree to pay taxes that elected officials can use to provide vital services. We can’t eliminate taxes but we do get the opportunity at every election to change (by peaceful means) the people who decide how to spend our tax money. We’re also free to complain endlessly about all manner of wasteful spending.

But what about when government saves money? Not saves as in making wise and frugal expenditures. What about when government puts tax money in the bank and leaves it there for a rainy day? That issue has come up locally again, and it’s worth revisiting.

The most recent case is the annual Columbia County budget for 2016 adopted last week. It is a $146-million spending plan that comes with a slight decrease in overall spending and an increase in the tax levy of just over one-half of one percent. It includes more money for Columbia-Greene Community College and doesn’t call for cutting services. It’s a fiscally prudent plan that reflects the maddeningly slow but steady economic recovery of the county and the region.

A couple of years ago the county’s fiscal future was painted much darker colors. State and federal agencies had failed to pay the county funds we were owed for operating the Pine Haven nursing home and rehabilitation facility and for other county functions. Local officials said at the time that the county was hemorrhaging cash, and the situation was unsustainable. But oddly enough, at the same time county officials expressed pride in the growth to $4 million of previously depleted reserve funds.

Since then the county has agreed to sell Pine Haven to a private company for $6.5 million and it has also unloaded the old Ockawamick School in Claverack. The money from the Ockawamick sale plus the $6.5 million from the transfer of Pine Haven when it’s completed next year will be combined in a reserve account called the Tax Stabilization Fund.

That all sounds like very good fiscal management, and perhaps it is. After all, these are one-time revenue sources. But if the county was already building up its reserve funds two years ago, when it faced financial difficulties, why does it need this new windfall now? County taxpayers have been supporting Pine Haven while Albany and Washington have been slow to pay their fair share, so shouldn’t county taxpayers get a break now that the county is relatively well to do?

The answer might be No. There’s a case to be made that fattening the county’s reserve fund piggybank will cushion the impact of unforeseen future expenses. And there are always some of those lurking out there.

But that’s all the more reason to have a clear and consistent county policy on the reason for these funds and how they may be used. County taxpayers also deserve to know under what circumstances the county’s prudence gives way to the right of taxpayers to manage our own money, thank you very much.

If the Board of Supervisors wants to set aside funds for a specific purpose like, say, to support planning and preparation for the impacts of climate change on the county, that makes sense and is a proposal that deserves public input and debate. Maybe county taxpayers don’t want their money used for that purpose. How would we know?

What we do know is that “tax stabilization” is a worthy goal but not a special purpose. Stabilizing taxes is one reason we elect supervisors to begin with; we expect them to make decisions that will keep our taxes within justifiable limits. If they can’t manage that, we can vote for candidates who might do a better job.

This issue gets down to the difference between sound fiscal policy and hoarding tax money. The state imposes some limits, but making this distinction at the county level is more about public trust than numbers and percentages. The supervisors should let the public know how much of our money they think they need to keep on hand just in case. And they should also explain when we might expect to see a little of our money to come back our way.

 

 

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